Weekend reads: Diversity without division
On Irshad Manji, pro-human pluralism - and why 'all of us are so much more than meets the eye'
In September 2020, in the midst of the racial reckoning that rocked many institutions, including my own, I read a book that shaped my thinking in profound ways.
That book, Don’t Label Me, is by the Canadian writer Irshad Manji, and it helped me to understand why I felt so uncomfortable with the approach to diversity that I was seeing play out all around me, and certainly in the media.
Don’t Label Me utilizes an unusual format, an extended conversation between the author and her dog, to think through how to heal divisions in our society.
Manji’s conclusions run counter to the Ibram Kendi school of anti-racism, which posits that the remedy to past discrimination is a form of present discrimination. Manji rejects, too, the Robin DiAngelo gospel that treats whiteness as a kind of original sin.
Instead, Manji focuses on affirming common humanity, engaging in nuanced, respectful, and empathetic conversations around differences — and acknowledging the uniqueness of every individual.
Shortly after I read the book, I interviewed Manji for a story on cancel culture for The Globe and Mail. (You can read it here, reprinted in my newsletter.)
I think about that conversation all the time.
During our chat, Manji was fearless in her critique of the current approach to DEI:
Dishonest diversity right now is the mainstream version of diversity. It slices and dices individuals into categories and then leaves them there. Now, I acknowledge in my book that labels can be starting points for further discovery, but they should never be finish lines, because labels can lie. They flatten each of us to one dimension, and vaporize all the rest that makes us, as I put it in the book, plurals.
By that I mean that all of us — the so-called white straight guy, as much as the queer Muslim — all of us are so much more than meets the eye.
Hearing her say this was a relief.
Manji’s humanist approach confirmed my own instincts, and my own experiences. In fact, it confirmed everything that I’ve learned over two decades of interviewing people.
Significantly, Manji insisted, over and over again, that true diversity must embrace diversity of thought:
The other dishonest aspect of dishonest diversity is that it never takes into account the fact that people within identity groups don’t all think the same way. Part of our individuality as human beings is that we will have different experiences, different passions, and different proclivities, and therefore we will also have different ideas and opinions and points of view. But when you’re lumping and pigeonholing people into groups, all of that tends to go by the wayside.
I find that actually dangerous — and not just inaccurate — because then human beings become grand abstractions. We fail to even inquire about what a person needs. And we assume on the basis of those grand abstractions that, simply by attaching a label to them, we are somehow respecting them or honouring them or meeting their needs. And that’s often not even close to being the case.
The “diversity without division” ethos that Manji lays out in her book — which she teaches through the Moral Courage project — is based, instead, on curiosity and individuality.
John McWhorter, another writer I follow and have interviewed, covered Manji’s work in a column for The New York Times:
… diversity, equity and inclusion programs often seem to be devoted to ridding workers of bias against, shall we say, diverse people. But there are scholars who’ve found that these programs backfire. A more constructive goal, in any case, would be to broaden the project beyond confronting bias and, rather, to help people deal with the challenge of differences among people and groups in this highly multiethnic society.
I think this week about Moral Courage College, an alternative to the D.E.I. ritual, a program offering training in how to productively grapple with the wide range of views and experiences found in most workplaces, as well as colleges, universities and even K-12 schools. Its founder, Irshad Manji, whom I know and admire, has created a method called Diversity Without Division. “This program doesn’t tell anybody what to think or believe,” she has said, “it teaches everybody to lower their emotional defenses so that contentious issues can be turned into constructive conversations and healthy teamwork.”
… The “courage” part of the name Moral Courage College is vital. The collegiality of groups united around manufactured certainties and Manichaean worldviews is tempting but also a kind of cop-out — and quite unmodern. Courage is allowing that your own view may be but one legitimate one among many, that there are no easy answers and that being your own self is a more gracious existence than joining a herd.
The approach to diversity described here is profoundly pro-human.
In order to get there, though, we must be willing to listen to others. And that’s something that Manji drove home when we spoke:
Having studied cognitive psychology and behavioural science up the wazoo — and having applied what I have learned from that study to not just my own life, but to the lives of the now thousands of young people that I’ve worked with from middle school, right through the university level — it has been shown to me over and over again that there really is one ironclad, non-negotiable law of human psychology.
And it is this: If you wish to be heard, you must first be willing to hear.
So, what might all of this mean for the media?
How might newsrooms resist the current approach to diversifying, say, interviewees, which frequently amounts to checking boxes on identity groups — a practice that can be both condescending and dehumanizing. And which, by the way, often does not accomplish its stated goal, which is to diversify the perspectives reflected on-air. (You can, for instance, wind up with a multiracial roster of guests who are all educated, affluent, secular, and part of the progressive left, espousing the same worldview.)
In her work, Manji argues that instead of fixating on achieving demographic diversity, we should cultivate diversity of viewpoint.
She plants a possibility: If organizations recruit a wide diversity of thought, they’ll wind up being more diverse in all ways.
“Start with a commitment to diversity of viewpoint,” she elaborated to Yascha Mounk on the Persuasion podcast. “If you are serious about that commitment, then diversity of demographics will follow.”
I hope that media organizations will consider this.
If you’re interested in diversity of thought, you might be interested in my conversation with the Canadian lawyer and author Jamil Jivani on this topic, on the Lean Out podcast. You can listen to that episode here.
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